- Language Tips
As I prepared to write this column on Thursday morning, 9.15 million teenagers across the country had already begun a Chinese language exam an hour earlier. During their two day grilling for the college entrance qualification, the students will sit tests in Chinese and English languages, mathematics and science or humanities.
For Chinese students the two days of exams are viewed as two of the most important days of their lives, because the exam results will determine whether they enter higher education or not, which promises - at least theoretically - a decent job in the future.
In fact the enrollment rate was low until the dramatic "enlargement of enrollment" in 1999. It was between 10-20 percent in the 1950s and 1960s before the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), during which colleges and universities suspended recruitment. When the entrance examination - known as the gaokao in China - resumed in 1977, 5.7 million candidates competed for 273,000 seats in college classrooms, an enrollment rate of only 4.8 percent.
The enrollment rate surpassed 50 percent in 1999 and rose to 72.3 percent last year. This year it will be 75 percent, according to the Ministry of Education.
So why is the gaokao still considered the "hardest struggle in one's life", given the chance of gaining access to higher education has increased so dramatically?
It is because the popularization of higher education has rendered the after-graduation competition for employment fiercer than ever before. Many employers, including governmental and non-governmental organizations, decline applications from those who are not graduates from the so-called yiben, or first-tier, universities or colleges. There are no official statistics as to how many such colleges China has. But the enrollment to them is believed to be a meager 8.5 percent, according to Xiong Bingqi, an education expert.
So the competition to do well in the gaokao is no less intense than it was before the spawning of new colleges in the first decade of this century. Students, and their parents, are all eyeing those first-tier universities as the door to a prosperous future.
To prepare for these exams, the young examinees have to toil for more than 1,000 days during their time at senior middle school. They have to read piles of books, trying to memorize facts, figures, formulae, science laws and alien vocabulary and doing mountains of exercises almost 13 hours a day, 7 days a week. There has been no play, no time - or at the most very little - for indulging in entertainment.
There has been much criticism of China's gaokao system - its emphasis on rote-learning and its strangling of children's creativity. And I fully agree with these criticisms. I sincerely believe that we should change our concept of education. But today I want to salute the youngsters who are battling through the exams. To realize their dreams and their parents' dreams, they have made enormous efforts and sacrificed their teenage years to studying. I know this attitude of mine may draw the fire of fury from ardent "defenders of children's rights".
China's education system may need a fundamental change but we have to admit that the current gaokao system is the only fair way for most children, especially those from unprivileged families, to have a chance of a good future for themselves and their families. This is the reality of this country. With the nation's economic life dominated by those with vested interests, for those children from ordinary families standing out in the grueling gaokao is the only hope they have for a better future. Telling these children not to work so hard and enjoy a more carefree childhood is telling them to give up their dreams. It sounds humane but is unrealistic.
So do not criticize the gaokao before working out a better way for sustainable economic growth and straightening out other complicated, more influential matters in China's political and economic lives. Let's forget about all the good and bad of gaokao and wish the kids success.
I finished this column in three hours, half an hour longer than the students' first morning exam - an indication that I'm still in the mindset of sitting an examination but I'm no longer young.
The author is a senior writer with China Daily.
(China Daily 06/08/2012 page8)